Thirty Five Solitary Train Rides

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If someone told me four years ago that I would spend my summer post-graduation travelling around Europe by myself, I would have seriously laughed in their face. This past July I did just that, and upon returning from my solitary jolly on the continent, I can honestly say that it is the best thing I have ever done.

 My reasons for travelling alone were very simple; I ostensibly lived alone for a large part of my time at university and subsequently are more than comfortable in my own company, which coupled together with the stark reality that I had no one to actually go Interrailing with, produced the ripe ingredients for me having no other option but to go by myself. The idea of spending a month with just little old me was not one that I was particularly fazed by at all. When I told people that I was daringly toying with the idea of undertaking such a journey, their immediate response, said with a substantial serving of surprise and sympathy, was that “I was a very brave girl”. Needless to say, that this reaction only further fuelled my drive to actually do it.

 At no single point in the before, during or after, of my journey did I feel remotely brave. Yes, there were times where I felt anxious and before I left I read blogs written by other women who had done a similar venture for tips on the best ways to stay safe. If I had taken the time to reflect on how “brave” I was being whilst sitting by myself on a train travelling to an unknown city in an unknown country where they spoke a language that I did not, I imagine that I would have worked myself up into a state of fear that had not crossed my mind up until that moment.

 In the past I came across this quote, “alone, but never lonely”, and I had never really considered what this actually meant until I went on my travels. Yes, I was alone, but I did not feel lonely. At least, I can count on one hand the times when I did. My sister and I visited Paris together for four days and after dropping her off at Charles de Gaulle airport, very early in the morning after no sleep, I felt lonely, tired and excited in a way I never had before. Also, through staying at hostels the vast majority of the time, I was constantly surrounded by people in the evenings to never have the time to unnecessarily work myself up into a state over being “alone and lonely”.

 I consider myself to be a relatively shy and nervous person and because I spend so much of my time by myself I find that when I am in conversation with new people I often make a complete ass of myself. For me, travelling solo opened up a world where I could easily chat to others and make friendships with people from different countries that I hope I will one day meet again. It was wonderful to meet like-minded individuals who spoke a different language but were facing the same problems as me. It is no great secret that our generation is faring considerably worse than our parents did at our age in terms of employment and home ownership, but this week’s Economist argues that despite this, we are better travelled and worldly-wise. Through my travels this summer and the people I met, I can attest that this is true. I also met a number of other young women, and men, travelling alone that I came to realise that British society places such a high importance on a “group culture” to the point where, especially for young women, the idea of doing certain pursuits alone is met with shock and confusion. This is something that I have come to strongly detest.

 Travelling alone allows you to indulge in complete selfishness. I relished in waking up each morning in a completely new city with new sights to explore and uncover at my own pace. Usually a stickler for schedules and adherence to them; I broke all my rules and did not plan out my adventure in advance in a bid to “live spontaneously”. However, I quickly realised that whilst I could arrive in a new city with no plan, I could not go without knowing how many days I had there and where I was heading to next. This meant that in a bedraggled, hot and sweaty state after trecking around Rome in a heat that I had never experienced before, I finally relented and plotted the remainder of my trip, in the midst completely forgetting about Budapest; a crime I will never forgive myself for.

 I would, without a doubt, relive my trip in a lifetime. I walked in the steps of King Louis XIV, drank delicious French wine, saw Lake Geneva and Mount Blanc in the quickest round-trip ever of Geneva, paid a ridiculous amount of money to see Leonardo di Vinci’s Last Supper (which is far more superior to the Mona Lisa), had the Leaning Tower of Pisa all to myself for breakfast, walked around Rome discovering Roman ruins on every corner, entered Pompeii and became so overwhelmed that I had to sit down on a street corner for a good 10 minutes before I could walk around the rest of the city, reached the peak of my pizza experience in Naples, climbed the 414 steps of the Camponile in Florence before 9am, had real apple strudel in Innsbruck embroiled in a mist at the bottom of the mountains, visited the Hapsburg monarchy’s estate in Vienna and thought that nothing could ever be as beautiful, had the most fun with strangers in Prague where everyone was friendly and unjudging, drank real German beer in Dresden, walked along the East Side Gallery in Berlin and tried to comprehend what life must have been like behind the Iron Curtain, had a frankfurter in Frankfurt, watched a chocolatier in Brussels and tasted real chocolate and, finally, walked through a German First World War trench outside Ypres and failed to gather to right words to convey my thoughts and feelings for what I was seeing.

 I acknowledge that I did only travel around central, Western Europe and I understand that there are other places in the world where my being a young woman travelling alone would have raised a significant number of more serious issues. These are places that I have on my list of ‘Countries To Visit Before I Die’ and when I do go there, if I am by myself, I am now much better prepared because I definitely did learn some lessons on personal safety from sojourning around the “safe haven” of Europe.

 Solitary travel was the most exhilarating thing I have ever done. I pride myself on the fact that I negotiated all of my train journeys myself even when there were problems that were only conveyed in languages I barely spoke, and that I did not get into any real trouble at all. I did not travel round Europe with the intention of “finding myself” and I will never claim for a moment that I did. However, I did learn that I am more than capable of looking out for myself in foreign lands, and I have grown in self-confidence. Finally, to the people who looked sad and told me I was “a very brave girl” for travelling by myself I thank you for spurring me on further because all of the experiences I had were one hundred percent worth it.

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